Unemployed and in his early 50s, James was “anti-computers” when he arrived at the Valley Learning Center, a nonprofit organization overseen by Ebenezer Second Baptist Church in Cincinnati.
“He was coming there pretty much every day, and we encouraged him to get an email address, told him in order to find a job he needed to get computer literate,” says Lead Pastor Jim Vickers.
Then James also began going to 150-attendee Ebenezer across the street from the learning center. The combined change that followed was powerful. “Now the volunteers can’t get him out of the computer lab!” Vickers relates. “A lot of what he does is electronic and online. Not only that, he has much greater enrichment spiritually.”
Vickers helped start Valley Learning Center in 1996 out of a nearby church where he was serving as assistant pastor. When he came to Ebenezer in 1997, the aging church of 35 had no outreach in place, so he brought the center under Ebenezer’s leadership.
Vickers had designed the center to assist the underserved, unemployed community of Lincoln Heights, where many live below the poverty line. He organized a team of volunteers to provide job readiness training, computer literacy training, tutoring and mentoring, and summer job placement.
“We need to draw people to solid, practical things they need,” Vickers says. “Once you help meet their practical needs, then we can encourage them more toward Christ.”
But he knew his small church couldn’t meet the community’s needs alone. So Vickers built relationships with local businesses, asking them to sponsor the learning center and help with community development. To breed more awareness of the center and its work, Ebenezer hosts an event each fall where pastors, business leaders and government leaders come from around the country to discuss the broader church’s role in economic development and neighborhood revitalization.
“I encourage all small church pastors to think outside the box and pursue these nontraditional relationships in the community, beyond the pastors they know,” Vickers says.
Largely because of these relationships, some 4,500 people a year find their way through the learning center’s doors. Housed in the church’s administrative wing, a 2,000-square-foot ranch across the street, the center’s team of volunteers makes a tangible difference to underprivileged Cincinnati residents each day. They recently tutored two high school seniors who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to graduate.
“The learning center is more the church to me than the traditional church,” Vickers says. “The center is where we do church and the sanctuary across the street is where we worship on Sundays.”
And the two will come together next year. Vickers plans to move the church from its traditional building into a new facility with capacity for a restaurant, a health complex and an expanded learning and business center—all to position the church for greater impact in the marketplace.
“I believe God wants us to move to different geography so we can enact even greater change,” he says.
FROM THE BEST OF OUTREACH: A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Outreach magazine.
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